Organic fabrics. Fair wages. Natural dyes. Conscious consumers want it, but is it sustainable for everybody’s wallets? The truth can hurt. Fortunately, it is possible to be susty on a budget.

Collectively, consumers have started to take interest in what goes on behind the scenes to make a garment. They’re concerned about maker conditions and environmental impacts, and surveys show that more than 80% of consumers are ready to usher in a new era of sustainability to support transparent, ethical, and eco-friendly brands. It’s an impressive figure; yet, when it comes time to put our money where our morals are, the truth is that supporting sustainable fashion brands becomes a division of the classes. Ethics come with a higher price tag that go against the cheap, fast fashion mold that so many consumers have found affordable for decades. Yet, in this new era of ‘conscious collections’ akin to luxury price tags, how is a budget-friendly fashionista supposed to be sustainable? 

Why Eco-Friendly Brands Cost More

Rachel Grant, CEO of an eco-friendly unisex brand based out of Los Angeles, California, explains why using sustainable materials ends up costing more: “The reason why it can get so expensive is because it takes low-impact organic crops to produce them. They are typically grown without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and can’t be genetically modified. There are very strict federal guidelines to be certified organic which is why it’s more expensive to mill organic or recycled fabrics — you’re paying for conscious fashion.” Her brand sells muscle tees for $95 and sweatshirts for $105. Grant’s decision to design and manufacture in Los Angeles is part of what makes her brand beyond the price range of many conscious consumers.

Similarly, Vetta Capsule, a capsule-inspired sustainable fashion brand, has all of its woven items made in a family run factory in NYC, while its sweaters are knit in a partner factory in Los Angeles. The price tag for one of their basic Supima cotton tees? $49, which is over four times the price of similarly styled items at Forever 21. Purchasing the $49 tee means supporting ‘made in America’ and reducing the distance (and CO2 emissions) that an item travels to reach your closet. Yet, purchasing a less-expensive tank that traveled thousands of miles is a more affordable choice for the average American. 

Even if a consumer wants to support an eco-friendly ‘made in America’ tee, the problem is that economics make shopping sustainably an elitist sport. 

For all of its unethical production, fast fashion brands make fashion accessible and affordable to the masses. In this way, they fuse the division between classes. Today, a duchess will wear the same dress as her assistant. When Meghan Markle stepped out in an  $35 ivory dress from H&M during a visit to an animal welfare charity in May, she offered women everywhere an opportunity to dress like her. Alternatively, her Staud “Millie” dress that she wore during her African tour was made from recycled nylon and came with a $325 price tag that the average American woman couldn’t afford. The high prices of sustainable fashion makes it unlikely that a woman on a budget would be able to purchase a dress or a tank that comes with a three-figure price tag.

Sustainable fashion on a budget

In 2018, the U.S Census Bureau listed the median household income at $63,000. So, it makes sense that the average American clothing budget is around $161 per month. For a sustainable fashionista, that’s the average price of a dress from Reformation. Sure, they’ve built their brand around lower water waste, fair wages, and improving worker’s well being — but, compare that to a $40 dress from fast fashion retailer H&M or the ultimate cheap fashion behemoth, Forever21, where dresses can dip as low as the price of a latte in New York ($3.50- $5.00). With a limited budget, it isn’t always sustainable to empty your wallet on one item. On the other hand, it also goes without saying that we are paying a high price for unconscious consuming. The frenzy of transforming wardrobes with trendy new pieces has amounted to a trillion-dollar industry that is damaging our environment. According to the UN Environment, “the fashion industry produces 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions,” two major environmental issues that need to be addressed imminently to preserve the future of our planet.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the dangers of rising temperatures, plastic waste in our oceans, and atrocious working conditions. Yet, when lifestyle changes come with a hefty impact on their wallet, what is a conscious consumer to do if they’re not in the top 1%? Fast fashion has become a cautionary tale, with the average American buying around 70 new garments yearly. But, we don’t hang onto them for long, and after only a few wears, many of our garments end up in landfills.

However, before we decide to concede to our clothing rotting away and emitting greenhouse gases in thousands of landfills, why not do our best to reuse and recycle our clothing?

After all, the most sustainable wardrobe is the one we already own.

Alternatively, if we’re able to limit the amount of clothing we purchase yearly, investing in long-lasting, well-made garments rather than fast fashion garments that quickly show their wear, it’s possible that more of us will be able to purchase higher quality items from sustainable brands even if we are limited to a tighter budget. By reducing your wardrobe from 30 poor-quality dresses from fast fashion companies to eight ethically-produced dresses from sustainable brands, more becomes possible for the consumer, the planet, and the women making our clothes.

How to Build a Sustainable closet on a Budget

There are ways to have a sustainable lifestyle (and susty wardrobe) aside from purchasing clothing from sustainable brands. In fact, the less we consume, the more sustainable we are actually being. Here are three ways that every fashionista can be sustainable, no matter her budget.

Reduce

One way to reduce your closet and landfill waste is by hosting a clothing swap. It’s a way to sustainably shop someone else’s closet and put a dent in fast fashion. Whether you host the event through word-of-mouth with close friends or organize it through Elite, Meetup, or Facebook, you’re likely to find a trendy piece or two to add to your closet. The average American woman has 30 barely-worn garments hanging in her closet that she’ll throw out, amounting to the 112 million tons of textiles that are added to landfills yearly. Why not find that clothing a forever home instead?

Reuse

Renting clothes has become not only a sustainable way to indulge in ‘fast styles’, but it’s also become a way to earn a few extra dollars. The fashion rental concept has come a long way since the early 2000s. There is a now a closet rental tailored for every style. Subscription boxes offer a rotating model of new looks to wear once and return. Peer to peer apps allow you to snap pictures from your phone. If you live in a bustling metropolis like New York City or London, you might have access to renting apps that use bike couriers for pickups and drop offs, offering a more eco-friendly form of package transportation. 

Recycle

Vintage. Thrifted. Co-Signed. Recycled. Second-hand shopping has also evolved over the last few decades. It’s gone from Goodwill and the stigma of wearing used clothing to the digital age of finding one-of-a-kind-pieces. Fast fashion retailer Nasty Gal was originally a vintage store on eBay before succumbing to stakeholders’ expectations and creating new items. Today, new apps and websites appear on our screens offering curated collections of ‘recycled’ clothing. And, according to a 2016 report, recycling textiles saves Nordic countries 425 million pounds of CO2 annually. According to U.S estimates, that’s about 42,000 cars on the road. Now, imagine how high those numbers would be if we all practiced recycled shopping? 

Sustainable fashion on a budget

Sustainable brands also need to partake in the conversation

While we can all do our part to partake in sustainable living, in a perfect world, sustainable brands would be more accessible to the masses. Protecting the environment is a collective effort that depends on people from all economic backgrounds working (and purchasing) together. Sustainable brands are already leading the fashion industry in the ethics department, but the next step for them will be to find new ways to make ethical clothing for every rung on the socioeconomic ladder. Sustainable fashion shouldn’t be something that’s reserved for the elite, and it will depend on brands that already share in their ethical values to partake in the conversation around sustainable brand accessibility.

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Images: Unsplash

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